Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I know these blog posts have become few and far between but I'm feeling like one today. So... I've been a busy lab monkey lately. I was thinking today about motivation, in a general sense. Why does anyone work hard at anything? Because most of us do work hard at something do we not? In many cases, it's may not be the same thing that we are paid for. I recently read something (kinda' dark) that I found oddly inspiring on the topic:

"A lazy person, whatever the talents with which he starts forth, will have condemned himself to second-hand thoughts, and to second-rate friends." Cyril Connoly

That's pretty harsh. Ol'Cyril didn't pull his punches. Second rate friends! Who wants those? And second-hand thoughts... I suppose that's plagiarism. I certainly wouldn't want to be a lazy plagiarist without at least some 'first-rate' company :)

So, like I said, I've been busy in the lab in recent months. I'm juggling multiple synthesis projects, supervising a young student, and spending much of what time is left on 'long term career prep'. I'm submitting job applications and formally documenting a few of my own research ideas in the hope that they may become proposals and then perhaps funded projects.

Everyone is motivated to work for their own reasons. What are yours? Obviously there's the pay cheque but I'm not talking about counting dollars hour by hour. I'm talking about a reason to work 'hard'. Something deeper than just a salary. I know that it's easier to work long hours if I don't have anything more interesting to do at home or on the weekend but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) that is rarely the case. Some people like coming to work because they like their colleagues. Personally, I get the most accomplished in the evenings when I'm in the lab alone :) My lab mates are good people but they're young and I'm a loner when it comes to lab work. I think the most motivated people have to be the ones who enjoy the work itself. That's a wonderful thing isn't it? I get that in the lab pretty often but certainly not everyday. After that, there's one other thing that can really drive us: working toward something 'big'. A good goal - something really worth getting. Maybe even a few of them.

We, synthetic chemists like to think that (assuming a few solid publications) we generally have good job prospects when you compare us with other fields of chemistry or even other sciences like biology or physics. That's because in addition to academic careers we have 'drug discovery' in the (massive) pharmaceutical industry which relies heavily on synthesis.

But the past year has seen R&D layoffs in large numbers and university departments have also decreased hiring as the economy has tumbled. These facts appear quite noticeable from where I'm standing. It's all expected to pick up again at some point but who really knows? I feel pretty fortunate to have some real security here for a while. I'll make the most out of it by getting a bunch of cool stuff published. Science is pretty satisfying when it's difficult and you win. But it is difficult. Synthesis requires lab hours - compounds don't make themselves. So I've gotta go :)

Friday, July 3, 2009

A trip across the BIG pond

When you cross the Pacific Ocean at night - as I did from LA to Brisbane recently - a calendar day vanishes from your life. And I don't mean that it was a long flight. Nope... I mean a box was skipped on my calendar. I lost June 27'th. I left LA at 10 pm Friday and arrived in Brisbane at 5am Sunday - just 14 hours later. If my birthday had been Saturday June 27'th I would get to be 29 for another whole year. I lost a Saturday. A Saturday of all days!!

We all know about that line drawn down the middle of the pacific, the crossing of which amounts to time-travel. And if you go the other way - leaving Brisbane at noon and flying east - you arrive in LA the morning before you left :) As simple as that concept might be I think its totally awesome.

I love flying. I like the takeoff, the landing, the airplane food. I even like the awkward chat with a stranger. Some of the people closest to me on the other hand, truly fear the big blue sky. Kate, for example, has been known leave a hand-written (and witnessed) 'will' stuck on the refrigerator. Other relatives simply won't fly. And they know what they're missing but they just can't do it. Anxiety, claustrophobia, a total lack of control over your own safety... I can understand all of those. But I also respect the power of numbers - thousands upon thousands of people land safely each day - the statistical equivalent of 'everybody' - and that's enough for me. I'm safe in the pilot's hands.

That being said... I dislike the super friendly pilots who introduce themselves before takeoff and welcome me aboard (as they usually do these days). I'm sure it's done to make the passengers feel at ease but it has the opposite effect on me. I don't want to be reminded that 'a person' is in charge of the plane - especially one who cares about friendly introductions. It's unprofessional. You're not a 'person'. You're a 'pilot'. You were not hired for your charm. Pilots are disciplined. People make mistakes. People are fatigued, emotional, careless. Pilots don't make cute jokes. They fly airplanes. As inappropriate as this will be, a few years ago when I flew from Manchaster to Dublin a young-sounding female Irish pilot with a strong accent and a great sense of humour (obviously) introduced herself over the speaker and told me to sit back and relax and enjoy the flight. Fat chance! I have know some Irish folk in my day and they were - each one of them - great people. Hilarious, wonderful, drunken people. And I would much rather have heard this woman's lovely accent telling stories at a pub then telling me to relax from the cockpit of a jet liner.

But I'm still here :)